Driving the conversation


A carpooling app is sparking a revolution in travel. Our writer heads to the South of France in the new Audi A7 Sportback and, en route, shares more than just a journey with his passengers

 

 

 

Picking up a hitchhiker has always seemed a thankless and even slightly risky task, but no longer. French company BlaBlaCar has come up with the perfect combination to lure the dubious: a cash incentive plus a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. The system is simple: a driver making a journey uses BlaBlaCar’s online platform and app to advertise their destination and the number of unoccupied seats in their vehicle; the would-be passenger pays the price set for the journey, which is determined either by an algorithm or by the driver themselves; and a pick-up request is sent to the driver, who, after consulting the prospective passenger’s profile, can either accept or decline.

To experience the system myself, I decide to try it out during a trip from the town of Tunbridge Wells in Kent to the Mediterranean port of Marseille and back. This 2000-mile journey is also a great opportunity to test out the new Audi A7 Sportback.

 

 

I create a profile and, after advertising my route on the app, am quickly inundated with requests from potential passengers. I select those I feel best fit my trip and take to the road. The journey ahead will hopefully reveal the fantastic potential of the sharing economy and also bring to light some of its less obvious benefits. In addition to maximising resources, easing road congestion and saving money, BlaBlaCar engages users in something of a social experiment: the chance to interact with people of all ages and from all walks of life.

‘Wow! I wasn’t expecting to travel in such luxury,’ says Thanh Tam, my first passenger, as she buckles up her seat belt. ‘The general image people have of car-sharing is that it’s all students in hatchbacks or hippies in vans. But that’s not true. If they knew it could be like this, I’m sure more of them would get involved.’

I’m driving the 20-year-old human-resources trainee to Troyes – a magnificent, mainly 16th-century city where she lives. She normally gets the train, but strikes have disrupted rail travel and she’s had to think laterally. She wouldn’t usually dream of hitchiking – it’s the driver profile and logging of the journey that is making her feel more comfortable about travelling with strangers.

 

 

This is a sentiment echoed by several of the other passengers I go on to pick up after Thanh. A succession of different people join me in the Audi, including Jean-Baptiste, a gypsy-jazz musician; Natalie, a teaching assistant; and British retirees John and his wife Heather, who are travelling with their dog, Monsieur.

‘In France, they do things differently,’ explains 71-year-old John, who lives in France. ‘Sometimes it’s for the worse, like the fact they don’t play cricket, but, more often than not, it’s for the better. Food and wine are obvious examples, but more surprising elements are clever innovations such as BlaBlaCar.’

 

 

Watching the French landscape rush past the car windows would be sufficiently diverting on its own, but the natural spectacle is matched by the fascinating flow of conversation from my passengers. At one point, we discuss fat-shredding techniques with bodybuilder Sonny, and at another, it’s traditional cooking with grandmother Rosa. Finally, we get quite deep and plunge into the realm of artistic expression with theatre scriptwriters Alice and Camille, who tell me about their latest project.

‘In the 1950s, my great-aunt travelled from France to Armenia with her husband and children,’ says Alice. ‘All she took with her was her sewing machine and a few clothes. In our play, we want to tell her story, as well as the story of Camille’s grandfather, who was a cyclocross champion in France at around the same time.’

‘What’s interesting is the relationship between humans and machines in both of these stories,’ explains Camille. ‘It’s funny, because it’s similar to what you’re doing with your feature. You’re exploring how people react to the Audi.’

 

 

I hadn’t thought about it like that, but her words ring true. During the journey, I’d been focused on conversations with my passengers rather than on the A7. In part, this is due to the ease with which this Audi can be driven for long distances, thanks to its punchy engine, smooth suspension, high level of interior comfort and advanced driver-assistance systems.

With the advent of autonomous-driving technology, the role of the car will be transformed – it’s likely to become a place in which to spend relaxed quality time, rather than simply a tool for transport. In that regard, BlaBlaCar has captured the zeitgeist: driving, especially in as refined a car as the Audi A7, like most things in life, is much more enjoyable when shared.

Words by John Silcox. Photographs by Sam Christmas.